One of the oddities of this year’s Super Tuesday was that a lot of people used it to attack Iowa and New Hampshire.
Some of the attacks seemed to be knocking the early states for getting it wrong. But the reason for the sequential system isn’t for the first two states to select the nominee; it’s for them to winnow the field, and to provide information for party actors (and voters) in subsequent states.
Other attacks had to do with the outsized importance of those early states. But if Super Tuesday proved anything this year, it was that Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t all that important. If they were, Joe Biden would be out of the contest, and Pete Buttigieg’s campaign would be alive and well.
Yes, it’s true that a lot of candidates were eliminated before the voters were involved. But this time around, most of them were winnowed before Iowa and New Hampshire. Cory Booker, Jay Inslee and others? They dropped out because they failed to attract support from the national party or in national polls.
Sure, Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t entirely irrelevant; if nothing else, they’re polled far more than other states, and party actors around the nation see those polls and react to them. But Democratic Party actors aren’t dolts: They are very aware (well, at least most of them) that Iowa and New Hampshire are atypical, and so they interpret polls and even election results in the proper context.
That’s one of the big reasons why Buttigieg didn’t pick up much support from the party after his early-state successes: He was already thought to have real problems with black and Latino voters, and he couldn’t prove otherwise until the campaign moved to Nevada — at which point he demonstrated to everyone’s satisfaction that those problems were real.
Could things have been different with a different schedule? Yes, I suspect they could have been — but only because Biden’s successes depended on a variety of events working out just right for him. So shuffling the cards might have produced different results. As it is, however, it’s hard to fault a system for being biased against black voters when a candidate supported by many black voters and black politicians appears to have an excellent chance to win.
At any rate, I can’t agree with this prediction: “R.I.P. Iowa and New Hampshire on the Democratic calendar if there’s a President Biden.” A President Biden would have won under the current system. Why would he change it? And the Democratic Party, if there’s a President Biden, would presumably be pretty happy about how things worked out. I doubt either Biden or the party as a whole would be very interested in putting in the effort to change things, especially with regard to New Hampshire.
And after all, I suspect a President Biden would like the idea of two states he’s done badly in leading off the calendar: If he did run for re-election and got a primary challenge, he’d either get extra credit from everyone for winning in Iowa and New Hampshire, or, if he lost, most people would give him a mulligan. If South Carolina were first? He’d be measured against his 2020 results.
Don’t forget, too, that moving the calendar around isn’t something national Democrats could do with a snap of the finger. It would take coordination with state parties, state legislatures and Republicans. And Republicans seem pretty happy with Iowa.
I do think Iowa is in some danger, but not because of demographics — Iowa might lose its slot because the Democratic Party is increasingly opposed to caucuses. Especially bungled ones. So it may be that something really does have to be done about Iowa.
Still, if Democrats do win the presidency this year, I’d expect New Hampshire to be very safe, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they wound up keeping Iowa in place too.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University.